The media dynamic in the UK is a funny old thing to describe to those not particularly familiar with it. Progressive Brits – even those with only a passing interest in politics from day to day – could talk for hours about the uncontrolled hell-scape of our print media. The myriad Murdoch-owned tabloids and broadsheets that essentially publish nonsense and falsehoods, drive division and have set a right-wing narrative for decades which continues to this day. However, when it comes to television, the sector has been governed for decades by a different set of independent regulatory authorities than those in the print media sector – the latest of which being, since 2003, the Office of Communications (Ofcom).
Ofcom fails to adapt to new media landscape
The regulatory duties of Ofcom are vast and apply to a multitude of television stations, programmes, presenters etc. But broadly speaking a consistent and important responsibility of all independent television regulators since back in the 1950s, was to ensure that broadcasters were politically impartial in their presentation. And, quite frankly, Ofcom, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) and the Independent Television Commission (ITC) among others have all done a broadly decent job in this regulation.
Comparing the television landscape in the UK to that in the United States currently – where networks such as Fox News are completely free to be unabashedly biased and inaccurate as they wish with no real oversight – has always seemed like night and day. Our political distribution issues were with print media, theirs with broadcast media – that’s always been the dynamic.
Enter the last decade or so in politics. The government has, rather obviously, never been much of a fan of truly independent regulators and David Cameron in the run-up to the 2010 general election made a number of high profile manifesto promises to gut the independent regulator and pass many of its duties to the Department for Media and Culture. This, however, never really transpired – and it’s arguable that the Conservatives saw Ofcom as more of a useful tool being reduced to a fairly toothless regulator than certain decision making responsibilities falling directly to government departments.
This led to controversy under Cameron’s reign, with Jeremy Hunt (then minister for culture) often accused of being the ‘Minister for Murdoch’ during News Corporation’s proposed takeover of BskyB. Hunt replaced Vince Cable as government regulatory overseer of the bid and ended up being incredibly pally with James Murdoch and being accused of bias in his oversight. Indeed the Leveson inquiry specifically accused Hunt of undermining Ofcom’s seniority in the bid oversight – with him leaking information on Ofcom to Murdoch instead of staying neutral during the process.
In the wake of this, during the following media scrutiny, Hunt would frequently defer to the independence of Ofcom in the process to avoid accusations of bias in his decision making – providing political cover for his alleged personal connections to Murdoch (page 15).
Ofcom reputational damage
Ofcom got through the entire affair reputationally damaged, but operational. One could argue that through the Cameron and May governments, Ofcom continued to be seen as a relatively common-sense regulator. For example it did take steps to separate Openreach from BT in 2016 to address conflicts of business interest, and it did handle various low level complaints that occurred as a result of content broadcast. However, it has become more and more unable to handle the media landscape that has arisen ‘post-2016’ in UK politics – specifically post-Johnson.
It has left many unsure whether the regulator has simply been exposed for relative toothlessness and unwillingness to challenge the government of the day, or whether the ties to the Conservative Party have become a bit too strong to challenge the right-wing media hegemony. It forms a large worry in many people’s minds; with a regulator in place, we could have a fighting chance against a ‘post-truth’ political climate in the UK – enforcing fact-based discussions and penalising blatant falsehoods or media bias. However, so far, this hasn’t happened.
A big year in Ofcom’s history was 2021, and really, the first year in which it was truly exposed as vulnerable to Conservative influence. Not that it was uncommon for Ofcom to be chaired by a Conservative Party member at this time, this was the year that Prime Minister Boris Johnson was strongly considering appointing former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre as Ofcom chair. To many, the partisan Brexiter responsible for horrendous tabloid news attacks, smears and disgusting peddling of right-wing reactionary discourse over the course of 26 years sounds like a sick joke to lead what should be a non-political, impartial media regulator. However this wasn’t to stop Johnson from brazenly advocating for one of his biggest cheerleaders in the right wing media.
Dacre, unsurprisingly as he was the former editor of the Daily Mail, was found to be “unsuitable” for the Ofcom role by the independent panel of interviewers in May 2021. Yet, stunningly, instead of choosing an approved candidate, Johnson and the government seemingly restarted the selection process and rewrote the selection criteria to give Dacre another chance. And as if that wasn’t enough to swing the scales in his favour, the government also appointed a Conservative lobbyist to the interview panel for the second go.
In terms of the usually dreary and bureaucratic selection process for a regulatory head, this was a startling, brazen and effectively corrupt attempt to subvert the process to get the prime minister’s clear favourite and ally for the job in place. Mercifully, Dacre pulled out of the race towards the end of 2021 – predictably blaming the civil service for having the gall to put him under independent scrutiny and saying he was taking up another, better job. How close we came, though.
It takes no prizes for guessing why this was attempted. With an obviously partisan figure like Dacre heading Ofcom, the regulatory landscape would change dramatically towards the right. As a very avid hater of the BBC’s impartiality and its refusal to allow people to peddle nonsense on the platform, he would’ve been able to regulate the BBC directly. Had Johnson’s preferred prospective chair for the BBC, Charles Moore – a former editor of more Johnson fansites such as the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator – not ruled himself out too, the two would’ve made for a particularly dangerous power couple. The BBC has often come under fire for their haphazard and feeble ability to show their impartiality, but the combination of Dacre and Moore at the helm would’ve been particularly devastating.
So, we’re safe right? Well, no. Because 2021 was also the year Ofcom approved the launch of GB News. Even in 2020, GB News was quite apparently and often described as ‘right-leaning’, and a direct comparator to Fox News in the US. Quite explicitly, in fact, with it often reported as being a direct, right-wing leaning counter to the BBC to capitalise on the distrust that the BBC has sown specifically within right-wingers.
The approval of GB News also allowed precedent to be set for another UK-focused Fox News clone to launch in 2022, TalkTV, which effectively promised to do the very same as GB News within the same space. The imminent approval of GB News was met with expected anger; those that had seen the toxicity within the television media space in the UK could see GB News as effectively a ‘safe-space’ for those talking heads who were too toxic for mainstream media to skew the news and opinion towards the right-wing.
At the time, the best response Ofcom could conjure up was their director of standards and audience protection at the time, Adam Baxter, stating that there was “no absolute right not to be offended by what you see on TV”. This is broadly true, although dodged the central question asked by GB News critics at this time; that they were supposed to be a news channel on TV, and therefore should need to abide by accuracy and due partiality guidelines. They’d seen the chaos on US television screens with their deeply partisan news programmes, especially at the time with the deep misinformation peddling around the 2020 US presidential elections, the election denialists, and the Dominion Voting conspiracy, and made the very reasonable claim that we didn’t want that here.
Yet, GB News launched on 13 June 2021 nonetheless. Presumably the vanguard of GB News being Andrew Neil – a respected, albeit right-leaning, ex-BBC interviewer – soothed Ofcom’s concerns of this television channel being anything less than a vehicle for right-wing populist rabble rousing. Surely Neil, with his BBC credentials of being hard on both left-wing and right-wing politicians, would guide GB News to its original mission of platforming ‘robust’ debate?
On 20 June, GB News subsequently added Brexit con-man Nigel Farage and Conservative MP Dehenna Davidson to its permanent roster of programme presenters. Four days later, Neil left GB News screens – initially taking a break from presenting with the expectation he would rejoin, but never did. In September that year, Neil announced his resignation as chairman from GB News and stated that it was the biggest mistake of his career.
In interviews following his resignation, he compared the channel directly to Fox News – claiming that “Fox deals in untruths, it deals in conspiracy theories and it deals in fake news”, and suggesting that whilst he felt the channel should never become that, in backroom talks the decision-makers at GB News wanted to go in a direction similar. Subsequently, he felt he couldn’t work there, and resigned from GB News. GB News opened with drama and chaos from the off – as expected – but I don’t think we predicted quite how bad it could get.
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